Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley Star At Suwannee Springfest

Legendary musicians and songwriters kick off bluegrass festival season.

LIVE OAK, Fla. — Drawn by the likes of Texas singer/songwriter Guy Clark, acoustic music pioneer Doc Watson, bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley and the zydeco-bluegrass-fusion band Donna the Buffalo, roots-music lovers dotted the rolling piney-wood hills near the banks of the Suwannee River over the weekend with their colorful tents.

On Saturday, at the three-day Suwannee Springfest, many of the state's finest writers showcased their new work and sang songs about the South at the intimate Old Florida tent stage at the entrance to the festival. Highlights included Bob Patterson's tribute to the melodic native names of Florida's waters, "Lullaby of the Rivers," and Marie Nofsinger' s "Rain."

"I always like to come back to Springfest. I don't know of a better place to play," said Nofsinger, a veteran of venues ranging from Tootsie's in Nashville to the Kerrville Folk Festival.

Over at the workshop stage, ceiling fans clicked and whirred in an effort to cool the old music hall as top tunesmiths Verlon Thompson and Jim Lauderdale traded songs and stories and took questions on what it's like to be a Nashville songwriter.

Thompson, whose work has been covered by Anne Murray, Suzy Bogguss and Beth Nielsen Chapman, told of the adventures in getting his song "Lucky Dog" recorded by Keith Whitley and sang several pieces from his CD.

Asked if there was room in Nashville for non-mainstream writers, Thompson replied, "Here we are, making a living at it."

"What we do certainly isn't mainstream country, but we've both gotten cuts from mainstream artists," Lauderdale added, and he proved his point with a soulful version of his "You Don't Seem to Miss Me," which became a hit duet for George Jones and Patty Loveless.

Next up on the workshop stage, songs imbued with a sense of place held sway as Peter Rowan opened up a session on songwriting technique with his western drifter ballad "Tumbleweed." Bluegrass Grammy nominee Tim O'Brien reached into the Celtic song bag to take the Irish immigrant John Riley to the wars of Mexico, and Darrell Scott, stepping out from his place as an ace Nashville sideman, sang of desperation and hope in "River Take Me Away."

As the three regaled a standing-room-only crowd with stories of how their songs came to be, Rowan remarked that using "key phrases and images from old songs can serve as ways to connect new songs with tradition."

"They become touchstones," Scott added, as he told the tale of writing a song to lyrics his father had composed some 30 years before, the story of a father and his soldier son, "With a Memory Like Mine."

Down the hill at the dance tent, Irish fusion band Celtic Soul rocked out with thoroughly contemporary versions of trad reels, jigs and hornpipes. The delighted crowd marked the Jacksonville, Fla., ensemble of transplanted Celts as a group to watch. They're on tour behind their just-released self-titled CD.

A herd of devoted fans waited out a long set change to hear a reincarnated version of Donna the Buffalo play bluegrass, zydeco and Americana behind Lauderdale, handling the high-stepping tune "Calico," the rocked-out soul of "Divide and Conquer" and the ballad "Why Do I Love You" with equal flair.

Over at the oak-shaded main stage, acoustic hero Watson — with longtime musical collaborator Jack Lawrence — took a packed crowd on a winding journey through the range of roots music he claims as his own, from the bluegrassy "Jailhouse Blues" to the folk standard "Darlin' Corey Is Gone" to the contemporary country of "Ready for the Times to Get Better," and brought the crowd to its feet with his closer, the acoustic standard "Roll on Buddy."

Guy Clark stepped up and stepped out with a set of his hits from "Baton Rouge" to "Desperados Waiting for a Train" (RealAudio excerpt), aided by Thompson and Darrell Scott. The main stage took on a quieter tone for the work of guitar ace Tony Rice and old-time music standout Norman Blake, as they joined together for several tunes, including an especially moving version of "Greenlight on the Southern."

As the evening grew late, O'Brien and Scott joined forces at the main stage for songs of life's journeys, including O'Brien's "Walk Beside Me" (RealAudio excerpt) and Scott's chilling tale of hope and heartbreak, "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive."

On the cheerier side, the duo fired up the smallish-but-enthusiastic crowd with O'Brien's trip through history, "No More Refugee," and then swung into musical history with a pair of Hank Williams' country-blues tunes, "Weary Blues From Waiting" (RealAudio excerpt) and "House of Gold" (RealAudio excerpt), from their upcoming Rounder release Real Time.

In the still warm early spring night, O'Brien told the crowd, "It's great to be outside playing music — this is really the way this kind of music should be done." The campers took this advice to heart, as the sounds of guitars, banjos and voices joined in song could be heard late into the night along the Suwannee, long after the performance stages turned dark.